Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai warned on Wednesday that legislation being advanced by the incoming government to broaden the powers of the police minister at the expense of the police commissioner was unnecessary and would damage public trust in the force.
Speaking during a heated, ill-tempered debate at a temporary Knesset committee set up to review the legislation, Shabtai insisted he was not opposed to change but asserted that the provisions set out in the new legislation would have “dramatic consequences” on police operations and needed to be more thoroughly evaluated.
During the hearing, Deputy Attorney General Amit Merari expressed the concerns of the Attorney General’s Office with the legislation, in particular, that it would curtail the independence of police from politics.
The hearing was held at a Special Committee for Amending the Police Ordinance, since full Knesset committees have not yet been established following last month’s national election.
MK Itamar Ben Gvir, the head of the far-right Otzma Yehudit party, has demanded the legislation be passed as part of his coalition deal with the Likud, which will see him appointed as national security minister, a new title for what is currently the public security minister.
The legislation sought by Ben Gvir would add a clause to the current police ordinance stipulating that the police commissioner is subject to the authority of the national security minister and specifying that only the minister can determine “policy and general principles” for the police.
Critics of the reform have claimed the new law would destroy the police’s independence from political interference, although Ben Gvir has argued it is critical in order to enable the overseeing minister to assert his preferred policies over the police.
Tempers quickly frayed during the hearing for the controversial legislation, with members of the outgoing coalition loudly denouncing Ben Gvir from the outset of his address to the committee.
Amid the ensuing shouting match, committee chair Likud MK Ophir Katz threatened to eject several MKs from the incoming opposition for cutting off Ben Gvir, who for his part accused them of “failing to respect democracy” by preventing him from setting out his rationale for the legislation.
Decorum was restored somewhat when Shabtai began his address after Ben Gvir’s comments, although the tension between the police commissioner and his likely incoming boss became increasingly palpable as he laid out a series of arguments against the bill.
When Shabtai began detailing his issues with the bill, and what he described as the minister’s substantial powers under existing law, Ben Gvir’s frustration spilled over. He interrupted the police commissioner on several occasions, albeit politely, to point out that the current law stipulates that policy is determined by the commissioner with only the approval of the minister.
While outlining the problems he saw with the legislation, Shabtai noted that the proposed law did not explain what, if any, were the deficiencies with the existing law or why the changes it would bring about were necessary.
“The public security minister has great powers today. I have served as a police commissioner under two ministers and I admit that I have yet to face a situation that illustrates the problem,” Shabtai asserted.
“It’s not that there haven’t been professional disagreements, but there have not been instances in which the minister requested that his policies be implemented that were not addressed.”
Shabtai added: “The proposed bill does not detail and does not clarify what has not been possible to do up until now and what will be possible to do after the legislation is passed.”
He warned that “dramatic changes like these need to be done with caution and through an in-depth and professional process,” he said.
During his address to the committee, Shabtai emphasized on several occasions the importance of the force’s status as a politically neutral and professional body that works “in an equitable and fair manner.”
He detailed the powers he said were currently held by the minister, including directing policy, establishing working plans for the police, setting priorities, responsibility over the police budget, making senior appointments and other matters.
“It is therefore a little hard for me to understand the claims that the minister is just a rubber stamp. He greatly influences the work of the police,” said Shabtai.
Turning to practical questions over the independence of police commanders under the new legislation, Shabtai questioned whether the minister would be able to instruct the police to disperse a specific protest or let it go on, divert police forces to a specific district at the expense of planned operations in other districts, or instruct police not to investigate specific types of crime.
“These are questions that we will need to deal with on day one after the legislation is passed. The law will have to give an answer to these issues. The [current] bill doe not provide an answer.”
Deputy Attorney General Merari stated that the far-reaching nature of the proposed bill meant that it should be advanced after a government is formed, as an official government-sponsored bill, and not in an expedited manner the parties of the incoming coalition are seeking in order to allow for a “professional and thorough” debate.
She also pointed out that under the current law, the responsible minister is not an “ultimate commissioner,” which she said was “an appropriate and correct point of balance between the authority of the minister and his responsibilities, and the independence of the police” and the commissioner who heads it.
“The proposed bill diverges significantly from this arrangement and seeks to create a new balance which in practice substantially reduces the independence of the Israel Police’s discretion,” said Merari.
Ben Gvir praised the police commissioner and said he “does a great deal for the safety of the Jewish people,” but asserted that the current law leaves the minister powerless to effect change in the operational effectiveness of the force.
Ben Gvir also claimed that “in all other democratic countries” the minister in charge of police has greater control over policy, and rejected claims that the legislation he seeks would politicize the force.
The incoming minister carried on to cite a report of the Zamir Committee, established to investigate riots that took place on the Temple Mount in October 1990, which he said had found that the minister should be actively involved in issues pertaining to the preservation of public order.
“In the current structure of the ministry and the police, there is not, as far as we know, the required tools for this,” said Ben Gvir.
“In the [Zamir] committee’s opinion, it is not enough that the minister receive a report from the police commissioner; the commissioner must consult with the minister.”
Ben Gvir quoted that committee as stating that tools were needed to allow the minister “to delineate policy, examine alternatives, maintain his own control over proposals submitted to him, coordinate at the ministerial level, analyze reports and develop monitoring of compliance with his instructions.”
The far-right leader also cited the Zadok Committee, a panel established to examine police work that submitted its report in 1999.
According to Ben Gvir, that committee stated the minister was entitled to delineate general policy, including in the field of police investigations, in consultation with the attorney general and the police commissioner.
“This is a historic amendment. There is no [democratic] country where the minister does not determine policy… We are here to fix things and to make changes,” said Ben Gvir.
He accused critics of the law of seeking to frighten the public and claimed they oppose the legislation simply because it was he who was advancing it.
“Admit the truth: if it weren’t Ben Gvir [pushing the bill] you would say ‘well done,'” he said.